May 11, 2008

Movie Review: Speed Racer

Way back in the 1960's Tatsuo Yoshida created a manga that centered on the adventures of a young racecar driver. In 1967 that series was turned into an animated television series that has seen many replays over the decades, including here in the US. That series was called Speed Racer. The cult nature it has achieved over the years in combination with the regular televised revivals (including runs on both MTV and Cartoon Network) made a live action cinematic adaptation an inevitability. The project has come and gone a few times over the years, with Alfonso Cuaron set to direct Johnny Depp in the title role at one point. Obviously, that incarnation never came to fruition, and I am not sure it would have been an improvement over what we ultimately received.

Well, I guess the cat is out of the bag. It's true, I like, really like, Speed Racer. It is not a deep film, it will not change your life nor will it give you any deep insight into character motivations. What Speed Racer does provide is a blast of candy-colored child-like fun. Pure and simple, this is like a candy store exploded onto the screen. It is filled from side to side and top to bottom with bright primary colors, nothing subtle about it.

I cannot, and do not claim any truly functional knowledge of Speed Racer. I have always been away of the show, the character, and some surrounding info about characters, but I do not believe I have ever seen a complete episode. That said, I will not be able to say just how true the film is to the source material.

The story of Speed Racer is all surface; there is very little subtext to it aside from the obviousness of the evils of big business and the importance of family. It is more the coming of age story of a young racecar driver as he struggles to find his way in the world. His obvious skill at the wheel of a race car make him a popular target for the big racing sponsors, whom are seen as the enemy as they rob independence from the little guy.

Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is the central character. He is a young racecar driver who has never gotten over the death of his older brother, providing immediate pathos. Following a meeting with Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), the head of a large corporation and potential sponsor, Speed's eyes are opened to corruption within the system. This experience leads Speed to want to make a difference the only way he knows how, racing. Speed enters a dangerous cross-country race and he is off on his crusade to make a difference.

Beyond that brief outline, I am hesitant to say more. As I mentioned earlier, there is not a lot to this story. That is not a criticism; the movie is definitely, and properly, targeted at a younger set. While the story does not offer considerable depth, it does not pander. It is a movie that sets out to entertain, and that it does in spades and in a way not seen on the big screen in some time.

Written and directed by the Wachowski Brothers, this is a definite departure from their previous work. This is their first foray into the world of family cinema, toning down the violence and other R-ratings grabbing elements that infiltrated their prior four films. Beyond the target change, substance-wise Speed Racer is the opposite of what they did with the Matrix series. Where the sci-fi series had layers upon layers of subtext, alternate meanings, and symbolism (to varying degrees of success), this film does away with those elements in favor of an amped up fun factor that employs many of the visual flourishes that they used in the earlier films.

I must admit to being very happy with how the movie turned out. The more than two-hour long movie is in a constant state of motion, even in the few quieter moments, I still felt as if we were surging forward. The screen is littered with big colors that are moved around the screen in such a way that the effect is similar to a kaleidoscope.

The Wachowski's use all manner of inventive visual techniques to move us from scene to scene. Cars racing by, heads floating through view, if you can wipe across the screen with it, they did it. Beyond the wipes and transitions, they do something early on that really drew me into the character and chained me to the action. What was it, you ask? It is during that initial big race that we see Speed in and the way it gets tied to his brother, and is intercut with flashbacks to Speed as a child. It is a wonderful way to draw in an audience, it helps you connect with a character that has little depth, while simultaneously introducing a "Wow!" moment in the visual arena.

There is no denying the fun factor in the visuals. I found the races and the wild things that happen during them to be beautifully delivered on the screen. I had no trouble following the action, other than during moments where confusion is required). I truly felt as if I was in another world where things like this could happen.

Now, Speed Racer is not a movie that will ever be confused as being realistic. This is a cartoon come to life. Of course, life is relative as this is a borderline animated film, what with all of the CG backgrounds and special effects. Frankly, I feel this is the only way they could have done it while retaining any of the feel of the animated series.

Stepping away from the look, the other factor that made the film work is the dialogue and the performances. Now, neither element can be considered "good" in the traditional sense, but within the context of the hyper-real universe of Speed Racer, they all fit in perfectly. The good guys are all good, the bad guys are all bad, and the words they speak would be equally at home if they appeared in comic book-style bubbles over their heads.

Emile Hirsch is fine as Speed, putting life in the blue shirt and red neckerchief. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon are fine as Pops and Mom Racer. Matthew Fox is nicely stoic as Racer X. However, there was an actor who did a great job of stealing scenes, that would be young Paulie Litt as Spritle Racer, Speed's little brother. He brings this odd grown-up child feel to this troublemaking youngster with the pet chimp. He was quite funny, and not in the annoying way that one would normally suspect. Last but not least, Christina Ricci is quite fetching as Speed's girlfriend, Trixie.

Bottomline. I am sure there will be those who have the exact opposite reaction that I did. I get the impression that you will either love it or hate it. It is a weird movie, but, for me, it provided an exciting blast of cinematic energy that had not been on the screen this year, until now. It is also safe for the family. There are a couple of minor language uses, and the violence is mostly comical and fantasy based. Speed Racer is not perfect, but it is well worth spending some time with.



Anonymous said...

The Wachowski bros certainly put a lot of effort into making Speed Racer... the movie overall looked and felt like a cross between anime, a kaleidoscope, that Flintstones movie, a video game and the Dukes of Hazard

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